Skip to main content
7 min read

Who can I turn to, my friends?

Putin’s brutal reprisals against dissidents has had a devastating effect on opposition journalists and authors in the country – today, the democratic resistance movement is weak and fragmented, and many have chosen to flee the country. Russian journalist and author Arkady Babchenko writes about the consequences.

Credits Text: Arkady Babchenko Translation from Russian: Håkan Löfgren Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson October 13 2015

I keep getting petitions asking me to spread information about the forest fires around Lake Baikal, to report on the situation to the country and somehow generally be helpful in putting them out. The petitions are all rhetorically written ‒ Vladimir Vladimirovich, we support you, why don’t you respond? And where are the journalists, why aren’t they helping to spread the information?
Ok, guys. All right, I am a journalist. Let’s see if I can help you.
I have enough subscribers; I’ll spread the information, open an account and begin collecting money for the relief of those destitute victims of the fires, for the acquisition of emergency supplies and the organization of volunteer forces…
But no, wait a minute. You know, I am a traitor to the nation. My PayPal and KeeWee accounts have been blocked. I was steamrolled when we fought to collect money for the Aleksei Navalnyi campaign fund. Remember how we struggled with crowd founding back then? Well, I just got away with it that time. So, guys, crowd founding is either illegal or next to illegal in Russia, my collection boxes are blocked, so I won’t be able to help you organize any fundraising. First of all, there’s simply nowhere to turn, and secondly, I don’t want to spend a year under house arrest, as Konstantin Jankauskas did for this cause.
So, what do we do?
Wait! But of course!
Evgeniia Chirikova!
She will help you! She is the one among us who knows about forests, who has the ability to defend them, who has her social status, knows her ecology inside out, has received a huge number of international awards, has a lot of connections and possibilities, and so on.
Write to Zhenia! She will definitely help you.
But no, wait a minute! She can’t. You know, Zhenia is now a refugee somewhere in the Baltic States…
So, let’s think some more.
Wait! Of course! Evgenii Vitishko!
Write to Vitishko! He also knows everything about forests, is an ecologist with an international reputation, a public activist. He will definitely help you.
But no, wait! Why, Vitishko is in prison. They put him in jail precisely for his forest and ecology involvement…
So now what should we do?
Well, of course! Suren Gasarian! He is a friend and comrade-in-arms of Vitishko, an ecologist, a forest defender! He knows what to do! He will help you! Write to him!
But no, wait. Suren is also a refugee now…
Ah, I’ve got it! But of course! Denis Sinyakov! The Greenpeace staff photographer! All the fires, natural disasters, protests, volunteers are his element. He is an accurate reporter. He is the one you should turn to.
But no, hold on. Denis was put in the slammer for two months, following the protests on board the Prirazlomnaia oil rig, and then he moved to the heroic city of Stockholm… Anyway, somehow Greenpeace is not very respected these days ‒ “cookies” and “tweets” from the U.S. State Department, foreign agents, and all that. Yes, Grigorii Kuksin is trying to cook something up there with his crew, with all five members, but that seems to be all so far.
Ah, of course! Mitia! Mitia Aleshkovskii! He can do it! He would know what to do and how to do it! He is the one who organized collections and distribution of human aid in the Crimean area ‒ truckloads of it; we were all together in Blagoveshensk, he was the expert organizer of aid to people during the emergency situation and of volunteer actions.
But no, wait. Mitia is now trying to build a children’s hospice. Instead of our government, mind you. Actually, there is not one children’s hospice in existence beyond the Ural Mountains in Russia in the 21st century. So if Mitia could do everything at once, he might be able to take on the Baikal issue as well. But I don’t think so.
But! Pavel Shechtman! He was crawling under all the caterpillar treads of all the bulldozers at all the demolitions of historical buildings. And he was one of the fighters in the Chimkin forest! He would…
Oh no, wait! Pasha has taken refuge in Kiev.
Aider Muzhdabaev? The assistant editor-in-chief of a newspaper with an edition of three million copies? That’s it! He could help!
But, no. He won’t be able to either. Aider is also there ‒ he’s a Crimean Tartar and political émigré in Kiev, working to resurrect the silenced TV-channel for Crimean Tartars.
So, who else? Alena Popova? Olga Romanenko? Kseniya Vasilchenko? Artem Aivazov? Matvei Krylov? All of my volunteer acquaintances with whom I traveled to the Crimea, and to Blagoveshensk, and to the Mordva? I don’t know. I think they are burnt out. I think exactly the same thing happened to them that happened to me ‒ people are not burning with desire to ruin their back muscles, their souls and their health for their country. They won’t travel anymore at their own expense to quench your forest fires.
And then we have the volunteer regulations, the National Security Agency, and all those cases. And there will be more people behind bars after this one. The hell I need that. Maybe we should simply write that people ought to travel on their own initiative. Why not, we are an oil rich nation; we have plenty of fuel, an aircraft industry, no respect for the federal system, one center only, one hierarchy, and a government monopoly on air travel. Just board and fly. So what’s the problem?
Hmm? What? How much does a ticket to Irkutsk really cost? Are you nuts out there, or did you just land from Mars or what…Yes, probably, you’re hardly the kind that flies…
So, damn it. To whom could you really turn in the end, my friends? Who could actually tell your story? To whom would you really write in order to get help?
To the army? They’re in the fields outside Ukraine. The Cossacks from Ural? They are in Donetsk. To Boris Nemtsov who arranged a meeting in Irkutsk in defense of the Baikal? He’s been murdered. Navalnyi? His brother is in a hostage situation, he‘s not up to it. Ilja Ponomarev? He’s a refugee in the US. Dmitrii Zimin? He’s done in. Wiped out. Kommersant, Gazeta, NTV, ORT? Bought up or on the defensive. Grani? Under blockade. Ezh? Blockade there too. Meduza? Moved abroad. Rustem Adagamov? A refugee. Andrei Mironov? Killed at Slaviansk. All my friends from the ranks of specialized journalists and photographers? They can’t get themselves out of Donbass.
Perhaps Putin himself? The country’s president, a country which right now, right at this moment is on fire and going down?
He’s at the gym drinking tea. He’s having a photo session. He’s not in the mood for you.
That’s it.
There is no one to write to, you guys.
While you were quiet, while you were indifferent, while they haven’t yet come after you, while “I’m not interested in politics,” while the opinion polls show ratings of 86 percent ‒ all ‒ ALL! ‒ of my acquaintances who could have helped you, have either emigrated, ended up in jail or been killed. I no longer have anywhere or anyone to send my writings to.
So, what should I tell you? Write to Putin’s storm troopers.
Or better, directly to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Those are the only remaining alternatives, I think.

Kindest regards
Independent journalism, freedom of speech, the opposition and civil society

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved